NARA and Declassification

Minutes 04/01/06

By Professor Weinstein, The Archivist of the United States

September 9, 2006

It's a pleasure to welcome you back to the National Archives Building. The last time we met, this beautiful, historic building was still suffering from the effects of the flood last June - but due to the outstanding efforts of so many dedicated NARA personnel, we are up and running and just about back to normal.

September is a big month for us. The capstone, of course, is Constitution Day on September 17th. We have a full schedule of programs scheduled that week to celebrate that noble human compact and to help make us all more mindful of this wonderful gift from our predecessors which all too often we may take for granted.

In this regard, the role that the Public Interest Declassification Board fulfills in meeting the challenge of maintaining the balance between government openness and secrecy in our society is, in many ways, encompassed in the U.S. Constitution itself and its accompanying Bill of Rights. The preamble to the Constitution makes it abundantly clear that one of the fundamental purposes of this historic framework is to provide for the "common defense" - national security, if you will, in today's parlance. The Bill of Rights, of course, sets forth freedom of speech and freedom of the press as bedrock principles for our society. And finally, the very first of our Charters of Freedom, the Declaration of Independence, emphasizes that our unique form of government derives its just powers from the consent of the people - thus necessitating an informed American citizenry. As such, the work of this Board in furthering an informed citizenry while at the same time enhancing the classification system, a critical tool essential to the security of our nation, is an awesome responsibility and as we prepare to celebrate the signing of our Constitution 219 years ago, I commend the Board members for furthering the balance encapsulated in our Constitution.

In a similar vein, we are making progress within the National Archives in our various declassification initiatives. You will hear later on today from Michael Kurtz with respect to progress to date in establishing the National Declassification Initiative (NDI) and the internal organizational and processing changes we have undertaken to best support the NDI. In earlier meetings with you, I promised that the National Archives would act swiftly and responsibly to begin to address the very serious challenges that we face in coordinating with other Federal agencies in the realm of declassification. The NDI will address the policies, procedures, structure, and resources needed to create a more reliable executive branch-wide declassification program for federal records. Specifically, the program will establish a better means for managing referrals of classified equities between executive branch agencies. In addition to the NDI, the National Archives has an established program for handling the systematic declassification of Presidential records called the Remote Archives Capture Project which you have been briefed on earlier by Sharon Fawcett and Nancy Smith. I have personally met with all the Federal agencies with major declassification programs and encouraged them to participate and support in these declassification initiatives. The new NDI program will reduce redundancies in declassification review, will promote accurate and consistent declassification decisions, will improve equity recognition across the declassification community, develop centralized priorities and management controls around the priorities, and make the declassification process more transparent to the public.

Towards those goals, an interagency executive steering group has been established. At our first meeting, representatives of the 12 executive branch agencies with major declassification responsibilities met to discuss various strategies required to ensure the NDI's success. In subsequent meetings, the executive steering group will develop and implement detailed work plans designed to ensure that agency equities are referred and resolved to allow the maximum feasible declassification. In addition, the executive steering group will focus on ensuring that common referral standards are developed, redundancies are reduced, and that records are adequately reviewed for declassification so that only information that must be retained for national security purposes is withheld. I look forward to the Board's observations and recommendations as we move forward in making the NDI a reality, and I especially look forward to your input with respect to declassification priorities for this interagency effort to ensure that the most substantive records are addressed in a timely fashion.

I also want to give you a status report on the progress made in addressing the major issues highlighted by the ISOO audit of the withdrawal of records from the open shelves at the National Archives for classification purposes. Since the ISOO audit report was issued, notwithstanding the ongoing Department of Energy review pursuant to the 'Kyl-Lott Amendment,' the practice of withdrawal of documents from the open shelves has been stopped in its tracks. Today, withdrawals are extremely rare and must demonstrate a compelling case. Only seven new documents have been withdrawn since April 26 when I lifted the moratorium. All of these withdrawals have been carefully noted in the opened files so that their removal is transparent to researchers and all have been handled in accordance with the audit protocol. One of the documents has been declassified and is now back on the shelf. Agency decisions are still pending on the other items.

As a result of the findings of the ISOO audit, I requested that agencies do another re-review of the documents withdrawn during the first re-review. This effort is ongoing and the National Archives expects the vast majority of records withdrawn to be restored to public access over the next several months. For example, at the end of their work, the Air Force expects that 95 percent of their records under re-review will be released in full or redacted. By way of another example, CIA is re-reviewing 55 boxes of State Department records and expects to release in full 85 percent of their records; release in redacted form 10 percent; and withhold 5 percent. Additional collections will likewise be reviewed for return to the open shelves.

I regard this as encouraging news and plan to continue to hold our feet to the fire to ensure that there is no backsliding. The NDI will not only streamline the declassification process, but it will also provide a forum for open and frank discussions among agencies, with input from the public through the Board, to ensure that the process is as transparent as possible. The challenges we face in this area are immense - and we cannot be successful without ongoing collaboration and cooperation between the agencies, NARA, and the public interest community.